Strong Is The New Skinny, And That’s Not Necessarily A Good Thing—go read this. I read it this morning, and it helped trigger some clarity for the loose thoughts about health and “health” culture (and its inevitable overlap with disability) that have been percolating about my mind without clear form.
A couple of years ago, a woman praised the trustworthiness of a young man to me. “He’s a great kid,” she said, “doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t do drugs. Really a good kid.” What, I wondered, do not drinking, not smoking, and not doing drugs have to do with whether I can trust him? Aren’t teetotalers perfectly capable of lying, cheating, stealing, and all of the other human vices? But the woman’s description was perfectly normal to her, and probably would’ve been to most people who’d heard her. It’s a truth generally assumed that abstinence from various substances harmful to the body is a moral virtue as well as a physical one.
When this image was circulating around Facebook, I dashed off a hasty rebuttal that quickly became, to my surprise, my most popular post thusfar. I wrote:
Imagine a stranger comes up to you and says “You should be doing ballet. There’s no excuse for not doing it. Anybody can be a ballet dancer if she works hard enough!” You’re perplexed, since you’ve never actually aspired to be a ballet dancer, and you say so. The stranger replies “But I know you can do it if you work hard! I believe in you!”
The next day, you’re walking in the park, and another stranger approaches you and says “Shouldn’t you be practicing your ballet exercises instead of wasting time here at the park? What’s your excuse?” Again, you say that you’re not interested in being a ballerina. The stranger huffs and says “I was just trying to be HELPFUL! I guess you’d rather wallow in self-pity than take personal responsibility!”
This happens to you over and over again. Eventually, you start to wonder if maybe you really are a bad person because you don’t do ballet. You sign up for a ballet class, but find that you hate it, and you keep tripping over your feet. You realize that you have no natural aptitude for it, and you don’t enjoy it, so you sensibly decide there are better uses for your time and energy.
But people keep nagging you over and over again to become a star ballerina. You complain to your friend about it, and she says “Being a ballerina is hard work. You have to keep practicing.” You explain once again that you don’t want to keep practicing; you just want to be accepted as the non-ballerina you are. Your friend sighs and says, “If you’re not happy, stop complaining and do something about it! You can always find time to practice harder!” You say, “But the reason I’m unhappy isn’t because I want to be a better ballet dancer; it’s because I want people to stop nagging me.” Your friend replies, “You can keep making excuses, or you can take personal responsibility for your own level of ballet skill.”
After several years of having variations of these conversations over and over again, you start to get angry. Why do other people care so much about your dancing ability? Your klutziness does not harm them in any tangible way. Why do people act as though you have some sort of obligation to become something that isn’t who you are and isn’t what you want to be? Why do people treat you as though you’re shirking responsibility, when you never signed on for any ballerina job?
Then someone sends you a picture of a woman. She has no arms, no legs, sixteen children, three jobs, and seven incurable chronic illnesses, and she is a world-class ballerina. She’s smiling and saying “If I can be a ballet dancer, anyone can! What’s YOUR excuse?”
Would you find her words “inspiring”? Helpful? Kind? Or would you find them maddeningly offensive?
Not because you’re jealous of her. Not because you hate ballet dancers. Not because you don’t appreciate the hard work and talent that goes into ballet dancing. But because you are sick and tired of people treating what ought to be a value-neutral personal choice of hobby as a moral obligation.
The word “Excuse,” in 21st-century American English, is used exclusively in the context of obligation. You need an “excuse” to skip school or work, need an “excuse” to disobey an order or commit a crime, need an “excuse” to do something you aren’t supposed to do, or fail to do something you are supposed to do. The word is used exclusively in the context of obligation. It has no other usage or meaning. Saying that someone needs an “excuse” for doing something or not doing something always, in every usage, presumes that the person has an obligation to not do or to do that thing.
THAT is why Maria Kang is controversial. Not because people “hate” her for being physically fit. Not because people are “jealous” of her. Not because her demand that we need to make excuses for our bodies “hits too close to home.” Not because we are whiny, excuse-making babies who refuse to take personal responsibility for our insufficient physical prowess.
It’s because her words are built on and perpetuate the idea of physical fitness as an obligation.
I could point out, and other people have, that people may have all kinds of reasons beyond their control for lacking physical prowess (disabilities, chronic illnesses, and so on). But that’s not the point. The point is that fitness isn’t an obligation, any more than ballet is. No one NEEDS an excuse. No one owes physical ability or health to anyone.
Remarkably popular, that.
What I didn’t say, but might have if I’d been inclined to continue in that vein, is that the false obligation of physical fitness, the false morality of health, is competing with, and sometimes surpassing, our actual obligations, our actual moral duties, as traditionally defined by our relationships to other people. Defining ourselves as good people because of our diet and exercise regimens frees us from the burden of more difficult, more meaningful ways of becoming good people, like kindness and compassion to others, advocacy for the good of society, care for our children, and abstinence from abuse and oppression of our fellow humans.
Certain studies validate what many observe anecdotally—exposure to organic foods correlates with judgmental attitudes. More strangely, the use of hand sanitizer seems to influence people to feel more conservative and more sexually judgmental, and washing one’s hands can influence one to feel more morally judgmental overall. To an extent, it makes sense: our society so strongly moralizes health behaviors (like food choices and handwashing) that engaging in socially-approved health behaviors leads one to feel morally superior, which in turn increases the judgmental impulse.
In a larger sense, the entire cultural focus on self-improvement reflects the same skewed moral priorities. There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement, of course, but whether it’s in the form of physical fitness, introspection, perspective, gratitude, learning, or mindfulness, self-improvement is not a moral substitute for service to others. It’s all well and good to learn to appreciate the little things, take up painting, read poetry, practice yoga, meditate, exercise, eat healthier foods, stop and smell the roses, and so on, but these things do not help anyone but oneself.
In this lies the problem of “poverty porn,” a close cousin to disability inspiration porn. Charitable organizations commonly use “poverty porn” to coax viewers to donate to programs that assist the poor, and while this is in many ways dehumanizing and misguided, at least the intent is still, somewhat, to help those in need. But the new trend in poverty porn is detached from any fundraising goals; it is simply meant to “inspire” relatively-privileged people to be grateful for things in their lives that they may take for granted. This cannot even be justified with the claim that the images are meant to help any disadvantaged people. Inspiring a middle-class American to put her problems in perspective of those of a homeless refugee from the Congo does nothing to help the homeless Congolese refugee; it only benefits the middle-class American. I doubt any hungry child has ever thought “at least my pain will help some rich person realize that her broken iPhone isn’t that bad.”
Perhaps its relative uselessness is part of what makes self-improvement culture and health-fitness culture so appealing. It’s easier to fill one’s moral voids by exercising or studying art or undergoing psychotherapy than to view one’s fellow humans as one’s equals. Which is certainly not to say that they’re mutually exclusive, of course. One can lift weights and do volunteer work, read literature and give to charity, eat a balanced diet and be kind to children. The problem comes when doing things “for yourself” is seen as a morally equivalent act to doing things for others, because both are grouped into “doing good things.”
All of which, of course, plays into narratives of disability. Disability is perceived as unhealthiness (and thus, if health is morality, as immorality), and in particular, mental disability/neurodivergence is explicitly linked to forms of immorality. “Wrong” and “mentally ill” are used interchangeably. Violent or otherwise morally reprehensible behavior is commonly cited as both a result of a mental illness or disability and as worthy of punishment. Of course, this is illogical—if “mental illness” were an actual meaningful phenomenon, surely characteristics of such an illness should not be punishable any more than fevers or rashes are. The fact that people instinctively recognize that violent and other morally reprehensible behavior is punishment-worthy (that these things are choices, not symptoms) logically ought to make them question the entire psychopathology model, in which disapproved-of behaviors are “illnesses” akin to physical illnesses. Alternately, if they are wedded to the idea that disapproved-of behaviors are “illnesses” no different from diabetes or cancer, it would logically lead them to question their commitment to punishment for these behaviors. But rather than question either of these cultural sacred cows, the medical model and the behavioral model, they instead adopt the belief that disapproved-of behaviors are illnesses, and that being ill is itself immoral.
This goes a long way towards explaining the social obsession with ferreting out “fake” ill or disabled people, the extreme contempt for those with “untreated” psychiatric disabilities, the passionate hostility to the anti-cure movement for autism and other neurological and neuropsychiatric disabilities, and the general lack of sympathy for the right to refuse unwanted medical treatments. If disability is “illness,” and illness is immorality, then to choose not to do everything in one’s power to “treat” or “cure” one’s immoral illness is no less than an unforgivable sin.
We have (we are told) a moral obligation to be “healthy” (where “healthy” also includes able-bodied and neurotypical). If we are “unhealthy” (which includes being disabled, neurodivergent, or mad), we have an obligation to do everything in our power to become “healthy” (and neurotypical and able-bodied). By contrast, others and the general society have no obligation to help “unhealthy” or disabled people. No obligation to grant us equal access to education, equal access to employment, financial benefits, accessible housing, accessible public spaces, accessible technology, or even basic civil rights to make our own decisions about our own lives—especially if we have made the immoral, sinful choice not to do everything possible to “heal” ourselves.
For the disability movement to get any sort of a foothold, we need to challenge this view of health, obligation, and morality, and we need not to do it in the form of “Disabled people can be healthy too” or “Disabled people have valid excuses for being unable to participate in socially-approved health behaviors.” While both of those statements are true, they miss the larger point. A society which defines “healthiness” as a moral obligation, defines disability as outside the boundaries of “healthiness,” and prioritizes the moral obligation to “self-improvement” (including “healthiness”) above moral obligations to other people, is a society which is fundamentally hostile to the equality of disabled people.
Further recommended reading: “What Makes A Health Citizen? Workout clothes, Risk and Fitness” by An Anonymous Newtown Autistic